THE COFFIN BEARER
On a snowy morning in late December, a little princess was born. Her hair was as black as the deepest earth, her eyes like pale moons reflecting a night sea, and her skin was as fair as the snow outside tempting the weak onto death. The king and queen, who long waited for a child, celebrated and all of the kingdom was invited into the warm castle to see the baby girl. In honor of the snowstorm that blanketed their home on her birth, the little princess was named Eira.
That evening, as peasants and nobles lined up to see the little one, a young servant boy waited patiently for his turn. He was only three and already working hard alongside his mother in the kitchen. The work today was harder than most, with so many to feed, but the kitchen kept him warm during the darkest days. For all the extra work required to do that day, in this moment, he was allowed to rest. He waited to thank the little princess for giving him the brief escape as his hands ached and his feet were tired from running errands for the adults.
When it was his turn, he leaned over the golden crher vadle and looked down at the little princess. Her body was small, so small he wagered she was more delicate than glass. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes filled with light. She gave him a little smile. He whispered to the little baby, "You may never know my name and you may yell at me once you learn words, but tonight, I thank you. For this, I offer you my hand to lift a burden of yours."
The boy's words were far too sophisticated for his years and class, and he did not understand them well himself. As soon as the boy spoke those words, six visitors from the deepest forests entered the castle.
Two of them had wings like butterflies, two halos of starlight, and two crowns of flowers and branches. The queens of the people in the forest surrounded the little girl as the king and queen looked on, smiling. They were the final of the king and queen's guests, and the most powerful of them all.
The women of magic each blessed the princess with a gift. The first lady said, "Little princess, you will grow into a beauty never known to man before."
The second spoke, "Your voice will be like the sound of birds and the wind, soft and powerful."
The third one gave her gift next. "Grace will always be yours."
And the fourth and fifth leaned in.
"You shall never show an ounce of temper before a crowd."
"Fear will not escape from you then either."
As the sixth lady came to give her gift, an unexpected visitor entered the door. She wore no crowns nor halos, and her wings glittering like stars were covered under a dark cloak. She kept her face hidden under her hood and she walked with an unnatural gale about her. The ceiling high above them distorted to show an inverted castle floating among impossible clouds and splashes of midday blue. She bowed before the cradle and held out a single red rose.
"This to you is my gift." Her voice was low, like the rumbling of thunder. It reverberated through every person in the castle.
The king pushed her aside. "Not from you. I know you, witch. I know how you have cursed men. You will not curse my child with your dark magic."
The fake sky above turned a dark gray and rain fell from the ceiling on them. Pouring down, the rain filled up the castle, rising higher until it almost spilt over into the cradle. She set the red rose ablaze in her hand and let the ash fall into the water.
The woman gave the king a cold, piercing stare. "You want a witch, do you? Then a curse you shall have. Your daughter will know all the gifts that have been given, and she will resent each one. And for myself, I give her the gift of dreams. When she reaches her twentieth birthday, a single rose thorn will take her away. She will prick her finger and the touch of that single thorn will be like a snake's venom taking its victim, shutting all of her away from this world. She will not wake from that dream for five hundred years."
The knights of the kingdom charged at the woman in the dark cloak. She laughed and disappeared.
All the water disappeared and the ceiling returned to normal. The queen collapsed against her throne in tears. The king cursed at the absent woman. A silence came over those in the castle.
The final guest, the sixth woman from deep in the forest, came forward. She touched the king's shoulders and said, "Mortal king, perhaps I can alleviate the pain some. If I may..."
The king, full of anger and sorrow, nodded.
The sixth fairy caressed the head of the innocent child. "You may sleep for five hundred years, but you will not know a day of age as you dream and you will never be alone. A guardian, for you, I will give. One who will not age again until you do, to watch over you as you dream and protect you from the changes of time and land. Who will take it upon them to fulfill this task?"
No prince and no knight said a word. The peasants from outside shifted uncomfortably, waiting for someone to speak up. The other noblemen averted their eyes.
A small voice finally spoke up. The little kitchen boy left his mother's side and bowed to the fairy lady. "I will. I swore to the princess I would alleviate any burden she may have to thank her for letting me rest this hour."
The king scoffed at the small boy. "You are nothing but a lowly servant. You cannot be the one."
"Mortal king, no others have offered themselves. His age makes him a good choice. He will grow at around the same rate as she does, and be a man in his prime when she falls into her sleep. Let him be the guardian."
His mother rushed up to him and held him close to her body. "You can't. He won't be able to live as a normal man if you do this to him. Your gift is merely a curse for another. He is too young to know what he says."
"Mother, I swore. So, I must." The boy freed himself from his mother's grasp. He bowed to the king. "Please, let me serve the princess. I am only a servant, but I swore. Let me help."
The king stared back at his crying wife and sighed. "Let it be then."
With that, the fairy woman touched her hands to each child. They both glowed a bright blue light. She gave the boy a sad look. "And so it is done."
When all the guests left the castle, the king ordered every rosebush in the kingdom to be destroyed. He forbade all who lived in the kingdom from growing roses until after his daughter's twentieth birthday. The princess was not told of the curse placed upon her. The little servant boy was kept in the kitchen, and treated no differently than before.
As she aged, the princess became more beautiful by the day. She was gentle and kind, and never showed any anger or fear in front of her subjects. Her voice was so soft and melodious that many stayed by her side simply to listen to her speak. Eira found no happiness in her subjects' affections. She spent most of her days locked up in her room in the highest tower.
There alone she could let out her tears and resentment. Though she was adored and first born, her parents gave so much more to her younger siblings. Her siblings all were arranged to be married and castles were built for their future. Wedding plans, land negotiations, the ways of power, she was kept from them. While she didn't care if she married or not, her parents' lack of any plans for her at all angered her.
In her dreams, they gave her wicked smiles and told her of their hatred for her. When she woke and found their kind faces, she only saw them as masks. Eventually, she came to see all who adored her as dancers in an elaborate masquerade meant to mock her.
Only one did not fawn over her. The kitchen boy who always served her meals in the tower only looked at her with a mournful gaze. He spoke little to her in all the years he served her, as was appropriate for a servant.
Each meal, he greeted her with, "Princess Eira, if I may enter, I have brought you your meal."
She would eat her meals by the window where she could see the garden. Nothing grew there. Every year on her birthday, the servants set it ablaze. Each day, she hoped a little green would appear there. Years passed and she never saw much of any green.
Tomorrow, it would burn again. She would be turning twenty. She kept watching the garden all day.
At dinner, the kitchen boy came to her door. He wasn't truly a kitchen "boy" anymore, as he was now a man, but Eira still referred to him as such. That evening, he lingered. For the first time, he spoke to her outside of his duties. "You mustn't go outside tomorrow, Princess."
Eira looked over at him, surprised. "Is that an order from my father?"
"No, it is mine." He said.
She waved at him. "Go on your way, you insubordinate fool. I don't wish to hear anymore from you today or tomorrow."
He bowed and left the room without a word.
When Eira went to sleep, she dreamt of the garden overgrowing with roses. The garden was endless. She ran through it, never reaching any end. She danced alone in the garden, happy to be free of her family and subjects.
Morning came, the day of her twentieth birthday. She woke early and went to open the windows before the burning began. She couldn't make them budge. No matter how hard she pushed, they wouldn't open.
When the kitchen boy came to bring her breakfast, she ordered him, "Open my windows. They are stuck."
He shook his head.
"Why do you disobey me?" She yelled.
He bit his lip and looked away from her.
"Open my windows!"
He took a piece of paper off her desk and wrote a single sentence, "May I disobey you?"
She gave him a strange look. "What is wrong with you? Fine, disobey me then."
"You told me not to speak to you today. So, I couldn't tell you why the windows won't open." He explained.
"Oh, I forgot I said that..." She looked back at the window. "Tell me then, why won't they open?"
"They're blocked. The garden has overgrown and encased the castle in a prison of green and thorns. Everyone else in the castle is working hard to destroy them. I demand you stay here." He said.
"You have no right to tell me what to do, kitchen boy. You knew about this last night, didn't you?" She asked in an angry voice.
"I have known something was coming since the day I met you." He bowed before her. "I am here to be your guardian, Princess. But, it won't be necessary if you stay here."
"What do you mean? What do you know?"
He leaned against the door. "When you were a baby, your father angered a fairy queen. She put a curse on you. On your twentieth birthday, should you prick your finger on the thorn of a rose, you will fall into a deep sleep that will last for five hundred years. She is out there now, making the roses take over the castle."
"So, that's what this is about? That's why they never do anything for me...and they never thought once to tell me." She balled her fists. "Well, I don't care. I don't need them. I'm not afraid of dreaming. That's the only happiness I have. Let me go. I'd like to meet this woman and thank her personally."
"Is that really your wish? Do you hate waking that much?" He asked.
"Yes, I do. Take me to her." She demanded.
He opened the door. Eira saw in him that his eyes were empty. He offered her his hand. "If this will alleviate your burden, I will take you to her."
Eira took his hand. He said nothing more to her as he escorted her down the long stairs of the tower. Outside the tower, the castle was burning. The king's men burned everything green. In the garden, the king pleaded with the woman in the dark cloak. His words meant nothing to her and she worked her magic more for every moment he took of her time.
When the kitchen boy brought Eira to the entrance of the garden, both the woman in the dark cloak and the king stopped to look at them.
The king was furious. "What have you done, you fool? Take her back inside or I'll slit your throat!"
"Father, I will not return." She let go of the kitchen boy's hand and held her hand up to the stem of a rose. "Are you the woman who put a curse on me?"
The woman smiled. "It is my gift to you, Princess."
"I thank you for it. I grow tired of waking. I only wish you'd given me a thousand years to dream." She pricked her finger on the thorn and fell.
The kitchen boy caught her in his arms. She did not immediately fall asleep. Her mind fluttered as the world around her became hazy. The king lunged at the kitchen boy with his sword. Before his sword could make contact, he fell over dead.
The fairy woman in the dark cloak said to him, "This is my gift to you. Any who threaten your life will meet with their end, and no wound you inflict on yourself can kill you. Enjoy your five hundred years of loneliness, boy."
With that, she disappeared. The flames around them engulfed everything.
Eira sleepily managed a few more words. "What does she mean by five hundred years of loneliness?"
"I am your guardian, Princess. While you sleep, I will stay by your side, for as long as I must." He watched her eyes lower.
"No one can wait that long." Her eyes shut and she spoke no more.
He carried her away from the flames to an abandoned home high in the mountains. There, he changed into clothes he stole as he left. Black covered him from head to toe. Eira, he rested on the floor, covering her in his old clothes. He set to work on building a coffin.
He still felt hunger and pain, but the agony of it placed no limits upon his life. He could endure through it and continue in spite of his body's signals. He worked continuously until the coffin was complete. It was made of sturdy wood on the outside and the interior was lined with a soft cushion filled with feathers. A few holes were left in hidden locations to allow air inside. He placed the princess inside it.
She smiled in her sleep. As she slept, he went out to hunt for food. He returned with two small hares, a bucket of fish, and some berries. While he prepared dinner, he wondered about the nature of her curse. She would not age, he knew. He did not know if she still needed to eat or if she could endure through it in the same uncomfortableness he did. Perhaps, he thought, she needed nothing at all.
When her stomach growled, he laughed. "So, you do get hungry."
Her being asleep would make feeding her difficult. He propped her up and chewed her food for her. She was cooperative in swallowing it. Carefully, he poured some water into her mouth. He kept his pouring slow to make sure he didn't let in too much at once. He laid her back down into the coffin afterwards and ate.
Out in the woods, he could get away with not having a job or anyone noticing he wasn't aging. Each day, he worked on the house, went to hunt, and took care of Eira. Occasionally, he would come down from the mountain and visit a nearby village to steal things. He made sure to visit a different village as often as possible. He sewed her new clothes so he could change her into clean ones daily. A tub was taken so he could make sure she was bathed once a week. Bowls and plates made feeding her easier.
Every day, he spent it quietly doing what he needed to. He held no resentment to the princess for her choice. If he stayed with the king, he would be doing whatever the king wanted him to do. There was no difference to him.
Sometimes, a traveler would come through the woods and ask to spend the night. He allowed them and explained away the coffin rather quickly. His black clothes served their purpose then as he told each guest his "wife" recently passed and her funeral was in a few days. When the guest was satisfied with his answer, he would pull the coffin into the storage pantry to ease the guest's discomfort at being in a room with a corpse. With her in another room he could continue to care for her without the guest seeing him.
For one hundred years, he carried on through his days with no resentment.
At two hundred years, he grew anxious. More of the land around him was being cut down for expanding towns. Eira continued on sleeping, still smiling. He cared for her as always. About every twenty years, he went down and stole new clothes. With the towns expanding, however, people were starting to remember his face in the area. He needed to move.
Under the cover of night, he stole a carriage and rode off with her. They traveled for weeks as he pretended to be transporting the body of a deceased noblewoman. When he was satisfied with how far away from others they were, he set to building them a new house.
At night, when it snowed, he would think back to the day they first met. He couldn't completely remember it, having only been three at the time. It was hazy now. He didn't understand how the fairy woman thought a child so young could consent to such a task. He held no resentment towards the princess, but for the fairies and the others who were there that day, he felt differently. The hatred was beginning to grow.
His mother was the only one who tried to save him. He knew nothing of what happened to her after he left the castle, but she would likely have died a long time ago. If he hadn't been "blessed" by the fairy woman, he would be deep in the ground himself. Every single person he knew from back then were all gone now, except for Eira.
He couldn't remember it clearly either, but sometime before he reached adulthood, he came to find the princess beautiful like everyone else. For him though, it was different. His entire being was filled with her, far beyond any adoration. The intense feeling settled as he grew older, but he knew a part of him still wished to caress her face and hold her late at night. Not once did he considered telling her that.
After all, he was her servant. His place was to fulfill her wishes.
A selfish part of him was growing in all the decades in between then, wanting to be rewarded for his work in protecting her. Even more wicked, dark thoughts sometimes wandered into his mind.
"No one would know if you did anything," the voice said.
He was disgusted with his own thoughts. If there was another around to speak with, he knew his mind wouldn't be so empty as to have room for such disturbances to sneak in.
"Five hundred years of loneliness..." He counted his time. "Three hundred more to go."
At three hundred years, he moved again. Finding a suitable place to live was becoming harder. People were everywhere. He settled for living in a small town and invented a new identity. Since he was living near others, he kept the coffin well hidden. This wasn't difficult as more homes were built with several rooms now. Creating a new identity was easy enough and he was able to find work. He amassed many skills over the years to ensure the princess's safety.
He stayed in a town for about ten years, a time frame short enough for no one to find it odd if he did not seem to have aged. Finding work that allowed him to check on Eira multiple times a day was also a difficult task. He managed despite his limitations.
When he returned home at night from work, he got into the habit of talking to Eira as he fed her dinner. She never said a word to him. He would tell her about his day and how he hoped she would wake early to see all the new things invented since she went to sleep. The nightly conversations soon became morning ones as well. He came to speak to her whenever he was home.
Deep down, he knew it was to fill the silence that was driving him mad. When he went to work, it alleviated it somewhat. But when he would return home after being around people for a few hours, it only made the silence more unbearable.
Sometimes, he would simply watch her sleep. Seeing her chest move up and down reminded him she really was alive. He wanted to touch her, but he stopped himself from doing so at any time he wasn't caring for one of her needs.
"Please, wake." He whispered those words to her every night before bed. Relief never came in the morning, as she lay there still sleeping in the coffin.
For a few years during this time, he tested the limits of that woman's magic. While he wouldn't admit it to himself, the emptiness was consuming him more each day. He wanted relief from it.
The first test he did absentmindedly. He cut himself, watching his wounds heal quickly. This was repeated with intent and depth several times. The results were always the same. He tried to hang himself, but his neck would not break nor could he manage to suffocate himself. He hung there in agony, unable to die. Poisons were ineffective. Broken bones healed in minutes, as did burns.
At his most desperate to die, he ran his hand through a machine at work to cut it off. His hand reformed before he could bleed out. After that attempt, he gave up trying to find ways to die.
When four hundred years passed, he decided to move to a new land entirely. He took a boat to another continent, sneaking her coffin aboard by disguising it as his luggage. In this new land, there were different customs to learn and the language sounded a little off, but he watched his language shift plenty over the years and wasn't bothered by it. He settled in with her and for a while, things were peaceful.
As always, when wars began, he found ways to keep himself out of it. He changed identities more frequently as the decades passed, and doing so was becoming harder. He learned how to get the documents he needed, but each time, it became more complicated to create who he was.
Photography was also becoming a problem. As it became easier for people to take photographs, he constantly worried about some local news snapping one of him. He kept on searching for somewhere to stay hidden. Mankind managed to sprawl out into nearly every corner and what was left was owned and regulated by someone.
With the number of years left dwindling down, he forced himself through each day and reminded himself it was nearly over. Centuries old now, his anger had grown tremendously in that time. He could barely remember what life at the castle was like anymore. That time in his life was completely dwarfed by all the years since. He could no longer remember what Eira's voice sounded like.
"We were only children...why were we involved for some petty dispute between adults?" He asked Eira. She said nothing, as always.
He wondered if he would go mad before the five hundred years ended.
Somehow, he managed. On the night before Eira's five hundred and twentieth birthday, he made sure the apartment they were in was thoroughly cleaned. He bought a few dresses for her to try on when she woke, and prepared a cake. He didn't know how the curse would end, so he stayed up the entire night. He kept his blankets ready on the floor beside her, as he always did, and rested his arms on the edge of the coffin as he watched her. In all five hundred years, she never stopped smiling.
"You've been having good dreams, haven't you?" He spoke softly. "I'm sorry, but you're going to wake up soon. But, you will sleep again like normal. I'm sure you'll keep on having good dreams."
Around sunrise, he accidentally fell asleep. He lay across the blankets on the floor, lost in his own dream.
On the five hundredth year, the day of Eira's birthday, the coffin opened up as he slept. Eira yawned and stretched. She looked around at her strange surroundings. The walls were made of wood instead of stone like her bedroom was. The floor was completely covered in a soft, white carpet. The furniture was in a style she did not recognize, nor did she know what half the things around her even were.
A calendar on the wall told her the month and year, December 1978. She stepped out of the coffin, nearly collapsing as she left it. Her body was weak from disuse. Down beside the coffin, a man slept on a thin blanket. She knelt down beside him.
"It can't be..." She stared down at his face. "Why did you wait?"
He was the only thing around her that was the same. He looked exactly as he did in her memories.
"Wake up..." She wanted to say his name, but she couldn't. She realized she never asked him what it was.
He opened his eyes, not completely awake. "Princess?"
"Good morning, kitchen boy."
"You're really awake...I'm not dreaming..." He placed his hand on her face, a look of relief on his own.
Eira blushed at such forward contact. "Yes, I am awake. You haven't been with me all this time, have you?"
"Why wouldn't I be? I am here to protect you." His eyes watered.
Tears fell from his face. He wiped them away. "Please forgive me. I am very...overwhelmed. The five hundred years are over. The curse has ended. And you're..."
He didn't think about what he was doing. He held her tightly in his arms and cried. He didn't know what he was crying for. Thoughts of her leaving, thoughts of her staying with him, living, dying--his mind was too full. Everything fell from him. For this moment, alone, he had her there. When that moment ended, he knew everything would change.
"I am sorry...I didn't know about what would happen to you...and I certainly didn't think you would stay with me all that time. I expected to wake up alone." Eira reciprocated his embrace. "Please, forgive my selfishness. The last five hundred years must have been so long..."
"May I...stay with you, for now?" He asked as he let go of her.
"If you wish to stay with me..." She gave a weak smile. "Though it really ought to be me asking you to stay. I have no idea where I am or what to do now. I need your help more than ever."
"A lot has changed since you've been sleeping." He laughed. His face lit up as he stared into Eira's eyes.
Eira wasn't used to looking at him like that. When he served her before, they rarely made eye contact or spoke for very long. Their words to each other were always distant or formal. She couldn't stop herself from noticing how beautiful his eyes were and how handsome he looked when he smiled.
"Thank you..." Her face burned a deep red. She wanted to call out his name. "I am sorry. If you told me it before, I have forgotten...may I ask your name?"
"My name?" He thought long about the answer to that question. He used so many names over the last five hundred years. No one spoke his name much even when he used it. In a flash, it returned to him. "My name is Ciarán."
"Ciarán...I'd like to stay with you. Would you bear the burden of carrying me along a little longer?" She took hold of his hands in hers and kissed them.
He pressed her hands against his face. "Yes."
That morning, Ciarán's body felt worn down and tired, but he didn't mind it. He taught Eira how to cook with the new stove and shared breakfast at the table. The sounds of their voices filled the tiny apartment, warming the small space as snow blanketed the windows.